Even though he had led the team to a 13-3 record, and NFC Championship game appearance, former San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff never looked sold on Alex Smith as the quarterback of the future.
Just over a month after the 2011 season ended, the Indianapolis Colts held a news conference to announce they were moving on from legendary quarterback Peyton Manning.
Although it wasn’t made public at the time, Harbaugh and the rest of the Niners brass made a trip to North Carolina to recruit Manning.
The folks over at The Athletic put together an amazing oral history detailing the recruitment of Manning, and some prominent 49ers staffers are part of it, including: Harbaugh, former OC Greg Roman and owner Jed York. The trio revealed what their thoughts were as they chased after one of the best signal-callers in NFL history.
Here are some of the key quotes:
“Jim Harbaugh asked if we could play some catch. I think all this talk about arm strength, he wanted to see it and feel it himself. I remember too, Randy Moss had just worked out for the 49ers, and I said, “Hey, how’d the Moss workout go?” He said, “Oh, he looked great.” He said, “But I threw it to him. I made every throw perfect. He didn’t come out of the break on one route. That was the only throw that we missed.” I thought that was a pretty good line. “Moss looked good, but I threw the ball pretty good, too.”
“The organization was fully in on Peyton Manning coming to the 49ers, and they handled the recruitment and negotiations. It was, “Well, Jed is going to find a way,” which I took to mean that he was going to figure out and it would be zero players we’d lose.”
“That was sort of a debate: Are you going to sign somebody that you may only get two or three years out of? (The doctors) were like, “He can play football. We just can’t tell you how long he can play football.”
Manning added that San Francisco was in it until the end, but he ultimately decided on signing a five-year deal worth $96 million with the Denver Broncos.
Both the 49ers and Broncos were among the best teams in the NFL during the 2012 season. Smith suffered a concussion during a Week 10 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams. He was replaced by second-year QB Colin Kaepernick, who never relinquished the starting job for the rest of the season.
Over in the AFC, Manning was back to his old self. He threw for 4,659 yards for 37 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions. Manning led the league in QBR, and helped Denver tie for the best record in the NFL at 13-3
It would have been a fascinating Super Bowl matchup, but Manning’s Broncos were upset by the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round, thanks to a season saving touchdown heave by QB Joe Flacco. We all know what happened in the Super Bowl.
The 49ers and Broncos came back strong in 2013. Kaepernick looked to be the real deal with his duo-threat style that fit Roman’s offense perfectly. Kap threw for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns and nine picks, finishing eighth in total QBR at 65.7.
Manning was having arguably his best season in the pros. Denver’s offense was virtually unstoppable, becoming the first team in NFL history to score more than 600 points. Manning’s individual stats were ridiculous. He led the league in yards (5.477), threw for an NFL-record 55 touchdowns, and he finished second in QBR and QB rating.
San Francisco was the better overall team that season. The 49ers’ defense was among the best in the league, while the Broncos’ unit was 19th in total yards allowed.
The Niners came up just short against the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship game. Just two weeks later, Denver got absolutely stomped by Seattle in the Super Bowl getting blown out 43-8.
Kaepernick’s play fell off over the next few seasons amid three different coaches. Meanwhile, Manning’s neck surgeries caught up to him, and although he wasn’t putting up the same numbers, he did just enough to support a great Broncos’ defense to win the 2015 Super Bowl.
Looking back at it, I do think the 49ers would have won a championship with Manning at QB. Although Kaepernick was great during the 2012 postseason, his play in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks in the 2013 NFC Championship game was a big reason why San Francisco came up short.
Do you think Manning would have led the 49ers to a title in 2013, or 2014, if he ended up signing with San Francisco?